Thursday, August 7, 2014

On the Crafting of Trans-Antagonistic Identities... and More

In my language policy (which I should probably look at because I haven't looked at it in a while) I mentioned I make a point to yield to self-identity in the vast majority of cases, even in such cases where a group is widely ridiculed or criticized.

The main exception is this: I don't accept identities that are specifically crafted to antagonize another group, something that is unfortunately incredibly common when it comes to transphobic cisgender people.  For instance, the phrase "women born women" is not a term I am willing to use in a non-critical context, because it was specifically coined by cis women being directly antagonistic to trans women (and usually accompanied by ludicrously offensive labels for trans women, like "men made women on operating tables," an actual phrase used by actual assholes).  I will not accept the phrase "autogynephile," even among trans women who identify with that term, because it was specifically constructed to demean and deny trans women's identities.  This is not something that's arguable to me.  The little comfort that the use of these labels in a positive manner grants to the cis people who created them is not in any way comparable to the environment the use of these words creates for trans people, especially trans women.

But right now there's a discussion going on on the Tumblr/Twitter rollercoaster that refers to a different set of claimed identities.  These are a bit more complicated, and I'd like to talk about them.

These are identities like "transabled," "transethnic," "transfat," "transspecies," "transracial," and a few assorted others.  These are distinct from identities people craft that are either meant to be cis-supremacist alternatives to the word "cis" or offensive terms referring to trans people.  They aren't actually related to transgenderism at all, and refer instead to people who wish to transition some marker other than gender (race, body type, etc.) or who in some way feel they sufficiently meet some other qualification that makes them "actually" a member of a different marker.

These are more complicated because there are two groups of people who maintain these claimed identities:
  1. People who actually feel that way, usually members of thriving therian, otherkin, and/or BIID communities.
  2. People who don't really feel that way, but who claim they do as an analogy to transgenderism in an attempt to make transgenderism look ridiculous.
The reason I'm writing this is largely because many of my friends and comrades are assuming that every instance of somebody using this sort of terminology is necessarily in the second category.  This is tempting, especially if the bulk of your engagement with these communities has been through members who make fucking ignorant statements about transgender people having privilege over them or constant hackneyed comparisons between transgender people and their own struggle or some other Gods-awful tripe.  I think, though, that we do need to recognize that we can point out the expansive differences between these groups and trans people without automatically invalidating all of their experiences.

For instance, there is a group of people out there known for wishing that they had some sort of disability, the classic example being people who have a functioning limb that they desperately wish was not there (this is not the only example; they're known for wanting "healthy" limbs amputated, but there are members of this community that merely wish these limbs were non-functional, among others).  This is known as Body Integrity Identity Disorder, or BIID.  And these people are very soundly ridiculed by a lot of people in social justice communities, as "wannabes" by the disabled community and appropriators by the trans community.

Some of them use the term "transabled," terminology that really bugs a lot of us for a variety of reasons.  "Transabled" discourse has a lot of problematic undertones, largely related to the implications that the people with these disabilities necessarily have different brains than abled people and that ability is fundamentally, inherently just about identity (identity has a lot to do with it, certainly, but that's something that develops due to common experience, it's not innate).

Here's the problem, though:  People with BIID are going through a very real, very painful struggle.  There aren't that many studies on it, but the one I am aware of suggested that somewhere in their development, their brains did not properly recognize some part of them.  So it works, it feels normal sensation, and they're usually able to move it at will, but it will always feel like an alien intruder in their body, causing a massive amount of stress and anxiety for them.  Since the vast majority of doctors will refuse what they would argue is a serious medical need of theirs, some resort to destroying a limb beyond repair to force a doctor to finally do it.  Is elective amputation the right solution?  We won't actually know until people start taking this condition seriously and cease acting like it's an attention play.

It's important to recognize that people with BIID are not necessarily in that community because they want the glamour and camaraderie of being a member of the disabled community.  Although such people likely exist, they exist in every community.

So we really need to do better at understanding what issues like this really mean without automatically acting like it's oppressive appropriation.  After all, there are plenty of people who willfully make ignorant arguments about trans women as if they are just men who want to appropriate womanhood.  This argument, of course, makes no sense: Within patriarchy, there is little to no benefit to transitioning male-to-female outside of individual trans women's comfort with themselves and their bodies, and that's not even to mention that there are at least some studies supporting the idea that transgenderism has a biological source.  We need to use these same forms of discretion before immediately discounting any identity.

That doesn't mean all identities are legitimate.  One of the reasons this is so frustrating is cases of so-called "transracialism," "transethnicity," "transfatness," and some cases of "transability" and so forth are deliberately constructed to be trans-antagonistic.  They're straw identities, meant as offensive analogies of trans people in an effort to "prove" how ridiculous our lives allegedly are.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way these straw accounts talk about and interact with trans people.  The way they function, you'd think trans people were their direct oppressors, blocking them from transition for selfish trans-y reasons.  This is, in fact, likely the source of otherkin spreading this kind of dipshittery.  It's hard to tell if people are serious or not sometimes.  But as a general rule, I don't seriously believe that a persona crafted by a person ostensibly claiming the desire to transition something other than gender while constantly acting like transgender people are their one true nemesis legitimately feel that way.  They're likely plants meant to make trans people look bad.

But what if they are serious?  Members of the therian and otherkin communities aren't necessarily appropriating from an oppressed group (animals don't have the self-concept to give a fuck if somebody identifies as one of them, and otherkin typically identify as mythological or fictional characters).  People with BIID as well as transgender people very likely have a strong need to transition to relieve legitimate anxiety.  So-called "transethnic" and "transracial" people (I have like no experience with "transfat" whatsoever) are participating in a harmful power structure with no realistic biological or psychological motivation that isn't terribly shallow.  Just look at Les Atkins, the man who decided to "live as a Native American."  He has no clear understanding of Native beliefs and practices at all (or he wouldn't dare wear a war bonnet), having gained most of his initial interest from Spaghetti Westerns.  He's not, as far as I can tell, a transphobic plant like so many of the Tumblr accounts, but is instead an example of somebody who probably legitimately thinks he feels this way.  Atkins' extreme ridiculousness doesn't actually reflect on trans people, but transphobes use characters like him as if they are analogous.

That's what we need to look out for.  It's both insensitive and harmful to automatically assume that a person's pain isn't real, but we definitely can use some discretion.